Illustrations from 12 years a slave

Here are six of the seven images from the 1853 edition of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. The frontispiece, showing Northup “in his plantation suit,” is in the original blog post.


I blogged about this kind of image before. The image of the slave cringing before the whip was ubiquitous in abolitionist literature, and was almost identical to the image of the wife cringing before the drunken husband and the horse cringing before its brute master. They are part of the “humane sensibility” emerging in public life before the Civil War.



Eliza’s features are caucasian; her hair is long and wavy. Her child is shown as entirely white. Her attitude and posture would have been familiar from sentimental pictures of mothers and children. It’s “europeanized.”


The publisher chose to illustrate a scene in which Chapin, a kind and decent white overseer, rescues Solomon from hanging.


ns4Here again the publisher chose to illustrate a scene in which benevolent white people are crucial. Solomon is “delivered” by Henry B. Northup, a member of the same white family that his father had served years before. He is understandably grateful, noticeably smaller, almost child sized compared to his white redeemer.


Solomon returns to a thoroughly respectable middle class parlor. The only nod to impropriety is that he has lost his silk top hat, something no gentleman should tolerate.

There’s nothing wrong with these images per se, but the make clear the degree to which the book had to be made to appeal to middle class white audiences.